By Eiji Ota*
It’s frustrating for small business owners to hear about great solutions that boost productivity, streamline processes and remove unseen costs, only to find that the products in question are really targeted at larger operations, involving high upfront software costs, complex technology integrations and expensive ongoing maintenance.
Historically, production workflow automation has tended to fall into this category. It’s been embraced enthusiastically by larger commercial print houses, who are driven to scrutinise their workflows and squeeze out every operational inefficiency. Large scale online print businesses in particular have a relentless focus on automation, because it’s critical to their high-volume/low-price business model.
For smaller businesses, sites with perhaps one or two mid-range digital production devices, the truth is that automation can feel intimidating and out of reach. But it’s precisely these businesses who need to make every employee as productive as possible, to maximise the value that each individual can contribute. They don’t have the luxury of carrying extra ‘bandwidth’ for eventualities. Staffing is lean, everybody does a bit of everything and pleasing the customer is the primary driver.
The commercial reality is that even small print businesses need to look at what can be automated in their operations – not necessarily because they should be pursuing the low-cost production models of their big online rivals, but because it’s a way of improving productivity, minimising errors and waste and saving costs.
There’s no getting away from the fact that most print businesses are now experiencing – or have already tried to absorb – a dramatic shift in order patterns. They’re having to manage many more small orders, compared with the larger runs of the analogue past. And most of these are coming in via email, creating a massive burden in pre-production, piling up the admin and prepress tasks required to bring in and check each job, get it on press and move it smoothly through to finishing and dispatch.
When margins are skinny, it’s vital not to spend valuable time on things that don’t add any value for the customer. Automating routine tasks frees up expert resources to focus on what is really going to drive the business forward – that is, doing a great job for customers and offering creative ideas and solutions to briefs.
Jo Lloyd, a Canon Ascent Programme mentor, works with PSPs across EMEA on business improvement programmes. She’s convinced there’s no business that can’t benefit from workflow automation, because even seemingly insignificant efficiency gains free up time and allow savings to be invested back into the business.
The key, according to Jo, is to begin by seeking out ways to streamline small, time-consuming tasks and eliminate mistakes, for example with pre-flight checking software which frees your artworkers to do chargeable creative work. And if your order history tells you that reprints are cutting into your margins, then it’s not hard to see how a solution that reduces the scope for error could soon pay for itself.
So, what’s holding smaller PSPs back from reaping the benefits of automation? Talking to this type of print customer, as well as smaller in-house print departments, my impression is that resistance to automation falls into two camps – those who think they don’t need it and those who would like it but think it’s just too complicated.
Let’s start by tackling the idea that automation is difficult to implement. Without a doubt, the perception exists that automation is complex and expensive and that IT expertise is needed to integrate it successfully and make it work day-to-day. The good news is that there’s now a growing range of cloud-based workflow solutions that printers can access on a subscription model, with no fixed cost commitments and no worries about upgrades and updates, maintenance or management. For SMEs, the other advantage of cloud services is that they’re scalable, so they can grow with the business. And they don’t need any on-site technical expertise to set up configure and maintain.
Canon customers, for example, have access to a new SaaS (software as a service) product called PRISMAprepare Go, which effectively gives them a virtual pre-production assistant, automatically onboarding jobs that the print buyer has submitted via an online portal, checking print files for errors or missing elements and processing them for print.
Then there are the customers who feel that automation is something they don’t need. They’re comfortable with the status quo, perhaps feeling complacent that, as long as work is coming in and going out, there’s no need for it. The danger with this mindset is that they’re missing opportunities to make it easier for customers – existing and new – to do business with them. Over time, there’s a real risk that this attitude will prompt business to move elsewhere, and certainly that it will be a barrier to new business.
More and more end customers want the convenience of ordering and submitting jobs online, for example, and suppliers who don’t offer a simple web-to-print facility will begin to look out of step. My strong advice to these businesses would be, rather than focusing only on the situation today, consider where you’re going and what buyers are likely to want from you in the future.
With cloud services, automation is now accessible and affordable for every business, not just the online giants. Without adding headcount or other fixed overheads, PSPs can do more, cut costs, gain headspace, and free up time to deliver the best possible service to customers and develop profitable new relationships.
Automation isn’t just about process efficiency – it’s a tool that builds bridges to customers and enables growth. With these potential gains, I’d say to any print business of any size: don’t wait to automate.